Bronzed prison boots: A story of redemption

Susan Varno/Contributing Writer Published May 4, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Susan Varno/Contributing Photographer

Chaplain Patrick McCown sits in the chapel office.

CALICO ROCK — “I began my prison ministry as a volunteer in 1995,” Patrick McCown said. Today, he is chaplain of the North Central Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction in Calico Rock.

“Back then, I was pastor of the Assembly of God Church at Parkin. Every Tuesday, I would go to the East Arkansas Unit at Brickeys. It was energizing to spend time with inmates who were reaching out for spiritual help.”

The assembly’s denominational leadership commissioned McCown as a chaplain.

“I went to local churches to raise money so I could work full time at the prison. Wherever I spoke, I would tell people the story of Carl and his bronzed boots.”

One night after worship service, an inmate named Carl stopped McCown.

“Chap,” the man said, “when I get home, I’m going to have these boots I’m wearing bronzed because these are my baby shoes.” McCown said tears came to the inmate’s eyes. “These are the shoes I was wearing when I was born again. I’m going to set them on my front porch, and when my old drug buddies and guys I used to party with come around, I’m going to tell them the old Carl has died. There’s a new baby in the house.”

McCown would then tell the congregation, “When you have baby dedications at this church, you love that cute and cuddly baby. But 20 years from now when sin has gotten into that man, he won’t be lovable anymore, but he will still have needs. And we’re going to restore him.”

Six years later, McCown became a state-paid chaplain, first at Benton, then at Tucker. He arrived at the North Central Unit in 2011. There, he has continued the existing faith-based programs and added new ones. Today, the North Central Unit houses almost 800 inmates and has a staff of more than 200.

“Twenty-six area churches sponsor the 31 volunteers working in our faith-based programs,” McCown said. To be a certified religious assistant (CRA), a volunteer must be sponsored by a church and undergo training every year.

McCown said the purpose of faith-based programs in prisons is to reduce discipline problems and prepare inmates to become productive citizens. To participate, an inmate must “demonstrate a teachable spirit and show evidence of progress.”

McCown believes faith-based programs help inmates understand there is a new day waiting for them if they prepare for the future while they are incarcerated.

“In small groups, the inmate deals with his thought processes, his life-control problems,” McCown said. “One of the principles we teach is, ‘There is a God, and I am not him.’ If a man has been self-centered most of his life, he needs to look at that principle.”

The Principles and Application for Life program is offered at all Arkansas Department of Correction chapels. At the North Central Unit, a group in the program meets every weekday morning for six to 12 months. CRAs teach classes and lead group sessions dealing with character development, principle training and anger resolution.

Stepping Into Freedom is a 24-week Christ-centered addiction recovery program that meets on Wednesday evenings. The 16-week Rejoice in Recovery program, based on the Sermon on the Mount, is also part of addiction recovery. These programs lead inmates to the Celebrate Recovery program for continuing support and encouragement. Begun in May 2012, the 16-week Living Free program meets weekday afternoons to discuss building and maintaining healthy relationships.

“What encourages me and the volunteers most is when we hear the guys say, ‘This has been life-changing for me.’” McCown said. “We hear our security staff say, ‘We see a change in the behavior of these guys.’ Some struggle and sometimes fail, but we see a pattern of positive progress.

“The standard joke is we have a ‘captive audience’ here. That’s not true. Everything in our faith-based ministry is voluntary. After an inmate has been working all day and wants to go to the yard or watch TV, it takes a commitment for him to come to the chapel.”

Each program leads to a certificate of completion. In the past six months, more than 100 inmates have graduated from the programs.

“Many inmates have never completed anything in the free world. Every six months, we have an awards dinner. Our message is, ‘We’re proud of you.’”

At the April dinner, several CRAs were honored for years of service: Jason Miller of Mountain View for 21 years; Don McGorty of Mountain Home for 20 years; and Albert Smith of Newberg and Gary Potter of Calico Rock for 16 years.

Three denominational chaplains, sponsored by local churches, assist McCown. C.M. Howell, Alton Harrison and Gilbert Molinar each work a few days a week, mostly in counseling. Molinar also serves as backup for emergencies.

There are denominational studies and worship opportunities ranging from a Catholic Mass twice a month to Islamic prayer services. McCown works with prison ministry programs and speaks at local churches. He would like to have more volunteers.

“It gives me great joy to see someone who is looking for an opportunity to serve,” McCown said. “Call me. I’ll be happy to meet with you in person.”

McCown and his wife, Joye, live in Arkansas Department of Correction housing on prison property.

“I’m on call whenever Warden [David] White needs me,” McCown said.

He regularly provides assistance and encouragement to inmates and answers questions from their families. He offers grief counseling when an inmate is informed that a loved one has died. McCown also provides some counseling to staff members.

“A prison can be an overwhelming place,” he said. “This ministry can drain you pretty quick. If your life is in balance, you will learn to let the Lord replenish you on a daily basis. I ask the Lord to help me share the intense pain many of these guys feel because of their situation.”

The North Central Unit has intermediate security, which makes the inmates easier to deal with, McCown said.

“The staff, Warden White and the community have been very supportive of everything I’ve tried to do,” McCown said. “It blesses my heart when we see inmates kneeling two and three deep at the altar, crying out to God for help.”

The chaplain would like to build a new chapel for the unit.

“Due to the increase in population and the interest in faith-based programming, we are in need of a larger chapel,” McCown said.

All of the unit’s certificate programs have waiting lists. The present chapel only seats about 80, so worship services are now held in the visitation area.

“With a dedicated chapel building, we would be able to expand our programs,” McCown said.

Funds for a building must come from private and church donations. All funding for faith-based textbooks and materials, award suppers, special events and other chapel expenses also come from donations.

To donate to the chapel program at the North Central Unit, to become a volunteer or to schedule the chaplain to speak to a church or organization, contact McCown at (870) 297-3344 or

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